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Mention African song and most people think of South African practitioners of the vocal arts – Solomon Linda, Miriam Makeba and perhaps more than anyone else in recent memory, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It is Ladysmith Black Mambazo who have come to represent the traditional culture of South Africa. They are regarded as South Africa's cultural emissaries at home and around the world.
In 1993, at Nelson Mandela's request, Black Mambazo accompanied the future President, and then South African President F.W. de Klerk, to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Mambazo sang again at President Mandela's inauguration in May of 1994. They are a national treasure of the new South Africa in part because they embody the traditions suppressed in the old South Africa.
When Paul Simon made his initial trip to South Africa, he met Joseph Shabalala and the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a recording studio in Johannesburg. Having listened to a cassette of their music sent by a DJ based in Los Angeles, Simon was captivated by the stirring sound of bass, alto and tenor harmonies. Simon incorporated the traditional sounds of black South Africa into the "Graceland" album, a project regarded by many as seminal to today's explosive interest in World Music.
The traditional music sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is called ISICATHAMIYA (Is-Cot-A-Me-Ya). It was born in the mines of South Africa. Black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, they would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday morning. Cothoza Mfana they called themselves, "tip toe guys," referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. There began a fierce but social competition held regularly and a highlight of everyone's social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, of course, the adoration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in YMCA assembly halls and church basements throughout "Zululand."
In the mid-fifties Joseph Shabalala took advantage of his proximity to the urban sprawl of the city of Durban, allowing him the opportunity to seek work in a factory. Leaving the family farm was not easy, but it was during this time that Joseph first showed a talent for singing. After singing with a few groups in Durban he returned to his hometown of Ladysmith and began to put together groups of his own. He was rarely satisfied with the results. "I felt there was something missing... I tried to teach the music that I felt, but I failed, until 1964 when a dream came to me. I always hear the harmony from that dream and I said 'This is the harmony that I want and I can teach it to my guys'." Joseph recruited members of his immediate family – brothers Headman and Jockey, cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko and other close friends to join. Joseph taught the group the harmonies from his dreams. With time and patience, Joseph's work began to reveal the colors of these dreams.
The name LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO came about as a result of winning every singing competition in which the group entered. "Ladysmith" is the hometown of the Shabalala family; "Black" makes reference to black oxen, considered to be the strongest on the farm. The Zulu word "Mambazo" refers to an ax – symbolic of the group's ability to "chop down" the competition. So good were they that after a time they were forbidden to enter the competitions but welcomed, of course, to entertain at them.
A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about their first record contract. Since then the group has recorded more than forty albums, selling more than six million records at home and abroad, establishing them as the number one record selling group from Africa. Their work with Paul Simon on the "Graceland" album attracted a world of fans that never knew that the subtleties of Zulu harmony could be so captivating.
Their first album release for the United States, "Shaka Zulu," was produced by Simon and won the Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Album. Since then, they have been nominated for a Grammy Award six additional times, including a nomination in 2001 for the album "Live From Royal Albert Hall." A documentary film titled "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps To Freedom," which is the story of Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Documentary Film in 2001. In addition "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom" has been nominated for American television's Emmy Award in 2002 for Best Cultural Documentary.
The group has recorded with numerous artists from around the world besides Paul Simon. These include Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, The Wynans, Julia Fordham, George Clinton, Russell Watson, Ben Harper, Des'Re and others. Their film work includes a featured appearance in Michael Jackson's video "Moonwalker" and Spike Lee's "Do It A Cappella." Black Mambazo provided soundtrack material for Disney's "The Lion King Part II" as well as Eddie Murphy's "Coming To America," Marlon Brando's "A Dry White Season," and James Earl Jones' "Cry The Beloved Country."
Their performance with Paul Simon on Sesame Street is legendary – their appearance is one of the top three requested Sesame Street segments in history. Their list of commercial projects include CLIO Award winning commercials for 7-Up and Lifesavers Candy, as well as an "on camera" appearance for an IBM television campaign, "Solutions For a Small Planet."
Mambazo worked with the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago to lend their singing and acting abilities to a play written about the apartheid era in South Africa. Premiering in Chicago in the spring of 1992 the play, "The Song of Jacob Zulu," opened on Broadway in New York City in the spring of '93 and was nominated for six TONY AWARDS including Best Music for a Play. Joseph and the group also were honored with the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Best Original Score.
In 1995 Joseph and Black Mambazo collaborated in the staging of "Nomathemba," a musical based on the first song ever written by Shabalala. "Nomathemba" premiered in Chicago, where once again the group received unanimous praise for its work and were awarded Chicago Theater's highest honor for Original Musical Score. "Nomathemba" went on to perform runs at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center and Boston's Shubert Theatre.
The group has been invited to perform at many special occasions. At the special invitation of President Mandela, one event was to perform for the Queen of England and the Royal Family at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Meeting the Queen, as well as other members of the Royal Family, was a stirring moment for the group. As Joseph later said, "To think of all the people we have met over the years. People from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia. Presidents, dignitaries, movie stars, and now the Queen of England. It is quite a dream for a Zulu South African to dream."
The group has also performed at two Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies, a performance for the Pope in Rome, South African Presidential inaugurations, the 1996 Summer Olympics, a Muhammad Ali television special, many music award shows from around the world, and many other special events. In the summer of 2002 Black Mambazo was again asked to represent their nation in London for a celebration for Queen Elizabeth II's 50th Anniversary as Monarch. Dubbed "The Party at the Palace," Ladysmith Black Mambazo joined with Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Phil Collins and Sir Paul McCartney on McCartney's song's "Hey Jude" and "All You Need Is Love."
After the concert members of the group joined a private party in Buckingham Palace, where they engaged in private conversations with Prince Charles, his sons Princes William and Harry, Prime Minister Tony Blair and, of course, Ozzy Osbourne.
Time does not seem to be slowing down the group as they continue to travel the world, meeting new friends and reaching new audiences. This allows Joseph to continue to spread his message of "Peace, Love, and Harmony."
Meanwhile, traditional life in South Africa continues to change. Cable television, MTV, and other international influences are taking its toll on tradition, and Joseph sees the wonder and the peril in this progress. Always a man to find faith in his dreams, Joseph's life ambition now is to establish the first Academy for the teaching and preservation of indigenous South African music and culture in South Africa. Aside from singing and writing, Joseph continues the teaching of young children the traditions his elders taught him. In fact, over the past several years, with the retirement of several members of the group, Joseph has enlisted the talents of four sons...the next Mambazo generation. While bringing a youthful energy to the group, it shows the world, and Joseph, that his teachings and the traditions of his people will not disappear.
Joseph's appointment as an associate professor of ethno-musicology at the University of Natal as well as a teaching position with UCLA in California, has given him a taste of the life of a scholar. "It's just like performing," says Joseph, beaming. "You work all day, correcting the mistakes, encouraging the young ones to be confident in their action. And if they do not succeed I always criticize myself. I am their teacher. They are willing to learn. But it is up to me to see they learn correctly."
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